Edinburgh Research Explorer

From Inglis to Scots: Mapping sounds to spellings

Project: Funded ProjectResearch

Total award£1,020,702.00
Funding organisationAHRC
Funder project referenceAH/L004542/1
Project websitehttp://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/lel_research/angus_mcIntosh_centre/from_inglis_to_scots/index.php


FITS aims to account systematically for the diversity of spelling attested in varieties of Scots between 1380 (the date of the earliest materials) and 1500. FITS will thus refine and significantly extend current knowledge of the phonological history of Older Scots. Our dataset consists of spellings recorded in the corpus of tagged texts compiled for A Linguistic Atlas of Older Scots, I: 1380–1500 (LAOS). FITS will focus on spellings of morphemes of Germanic origin in particular. For each such morpheme, we will:

- reconstruct a sound value for each unit of each variant spelling and identify the particular phonological changes (if any) by which that sound evolved from its Old English (or potentially Old Norse) progenitor.

- catalogue and describe, in a Corpus of Changes, each of the phonological developments referred to in our reconstructions. We will also index any orthographic changes evident in our source materials.

- annotate our analyses with ancillary information to facilitate the discovery of any regional, temporal or lexical patterns in the use of individual forms.

The results will be published online in a fully searchable database. This database will be linked to relevant information in two other large, online resources, namely LAOS and CoNE (A Corpus of Narrative Etymologies from Primitive Old English to Early Middle English).

The project also supports a PhD studentship which investigates orthographic representations of non-final vowels in Older Scots inflections and conditioning factors for each variant type.

Plain English Description

There is no contemporaneous linguistic evidence for the emergence of ‘Inglis’, the northern variety of English known later as Scots. This gap in the evidential record is frustrating as it is during this period (i.e. between c.1100 and c.1375) that the full Scottish state was established and the regional language known today as Scots began to flourish as its national language. We know that Inglis evolved from the northern variety of Old English known as Old Northumbrian. Unfortunately, Old Northumbrian is itself poorly documented, although sufficient materials survive to show that by 1100 the English of the north was already recognizably different from that of the south.

One of the most striking aspects of materials written in Scots between 1375 and 1500 is the sheer number of spelling variants for what are single words with fixed spellings in present day standard written English: the word ‘town’, for example, is spelled no fewer than 26 ways in pre-1500 Scots. Such diversity of spelling is unsurprising: only when a national written standard began to emerge in the 16th century did spellings become fixed. Studies of other, non-standard, medieval varieties of English have found that spelling variation is almost always the result of regional and/or temporal differences in the diffusion of linguistic change. There is every reason to believe that the spelling variation present in pre-1500 Scots texts has a similar explanation.

Our goal is to investigate systematically the extent of spelling variation evident in a large corpus of local documents written in Scots between 1380 and 1500. Taking as our starting point the probable phonetic shape of each word at c.1100, we will trace its development through to its set of attested spellings in our corpus. This will involve: (i) determining the likely pronunciations behind each early Scots spelling; and (ii) mapping a path across the evidential gap, i.e. specifying how each spelling and its (reconstructed) pronunciation evolved from its Old English (where possible Old Northumbrian) input form. From this we will catalogue, in a Corpus of Changes, all the linguistic developments involved. Our microscopic study of pre-1500 Scots spellings will thus help us to re-write the phonological history of early Scots.

At a time of widespread interest in questions of national identity in the UK, research concerned with questions of national and linguistic origins is especially timely. Our project will contribute a deeper understanding of the linguistic history of Inglis, Scots and English and of the relationship between them.